The tone was about as bored and impersonal as it was possible to be and still sound civil.
"Anthony Bridge." I answered.
"Age?" in that same tone.
"Date of death?" I was asked in the same annoying tone.
It wasn’t what I was expecting. For a start there were no Pearly Gates, no angelic-looking Saint Peter with a shining halo above his sage head, no choir of angels singing either. Instead what I found was an extremely bland, even shabby, room that had an uncanny resemblance to a train station ticket hall in which at least several hundred people of all ages, races, colours and creeds lined-up, patiently awaiting their turn to be seen by one of several officials with clip-boards.
"March eighteenth, twenty-sixteen." I answered.
"Cause of death?"
"I don’t know. I was in a car-crash. I guess I must have sustained any number of life-threatening injuries." I answered truthfully.The official grunted something unintelligible and made a notation on the form he was completing.
"How old were you at your last birthday?" he asked after a pause of five or six heartbeats.
"Last birthday? Uh, forty-two."
"Okay." Another notation.
Suddenly a wailing scream rent the air.
"NOOOO! Not that!" a clearly terrified woman wailed loudly. "Please, there must be a mistake!" she cried in anguish.As I watched four burly-looking men surrounded the woman. While three of the guys held the none-too-small lady the fourth administered a hypodermic to her arm. Moments later she fell silent and she was led docilely away.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"Purgatory." the official replied without looking up from his clipboard.
"I’m sorry? Purgatory?" I queried.
"That’s what I said. Purgatory. For her." the less than chatty official said, sounding a tad irritated.
I decided to not ask any further questions.
"Any deceased relatives in the past fifteen years?" he asked instead.
I had to think for a few moments.
"Yes. My mother died in twenty oh-seven, my father in twenty oh-four and an uncle a couple of years ago."
"Not that I’m aware of, no."
More notations on the clipboard. After a few moments writing the official reached into the inner pocket of the smock-type jacket he was wearing. I laughed aloud when I saw what he withdrew.
"A calculator?" I asked, amused.
"Contrary to popular belief, I am not a machine or a magician. Actually I used to be an accountant." the official said rather defensively as he began to tap rapidly on the small buttons of the hand-held device.
I watched with interest. I had no idea where this was going, but I was about to find out.
"Seven years, five months, eleven days and sixteen hours." he said in a flat matter-of-fact tone.
"I’m sorry? Seven years and whatever else for what?"
"That’s what you owe us. Seven years, five months, eleven days and sixteen hours. It’s all here. I’ve just worked it out and it’s accurate to the last hour." the official stated again. "We disregard the odd minutes, you know." he added helpfully, as though it was the deal-clincher.
"I am still none the wiser. To whom and for what do I owe this time?"
"Time wasting." he said as though it was self-explanatory.
"I’ll need a little more than two words to clarify things." I said, probably sounding a little exasperated.
A couple of rows across a large built man with an extremely shiny bald head and a thick black and grey beard whooped loudly and grinned delightedly at the official who was taking his details.
"Straight through, that one." my official said without prompting from me.
"Lucky him." I quipped sarcastically. "So what about these seven years and what-not? Are you going to explain it to me?" I asked again.
The official drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. I’m sure he would have sighed impatiently at me, but that would have been unseemly I guessed.
"It’s all here," he told me, showing me a whole series of hand-drawn columns of numerical notations. There were maybe ten or twelve columns each with a total at the bottom. "And here is where I got your total: seven years…"
"… and blah, blah, blah." I interrupted. "I still do not understand why these numbers are so important to you."
"Oh, no sir, not to me. They make no difference to me whatsoever, sir." the official said hurriedly, as though he wanted to distance himself from his own calculations as far as possible. "Not me at all… but of the utmost importance to you, sir."
"Then for goodness sake, explain to me in simple terms how they affect me!" I said, not bothering to disguise my irritation any longer.
This time the official did sigh audibly.
"The figures, sir," he began slowly, "were calculated on the basis of the number of hours and days you wasted during your lifetime, time that could well have been spent doing something - anything – useful and productive." he explained.
"Wasting time? How? What?" I stumbled.
"All those hours, sir, lying in bed on wonderful summer mornings, for instance. They alone account for more than sixteen days of your lifetime’s total wastage."
"This is some kind of joke, right?" I laughed uncertainly.
"Then there are the hours you wasted at the pub, drinking more than you needed to; hours sitting in traffic queues; hours waiting for public transport, hours just daydreaming, doing nothing in particular. They all add up sir. In your case to seven years, five months, eleven days and sixteen hours…, sir" he said with a note of finality.
"That’s preposterous!" I exclaimed. "I cannot be held accountable for all of that wasted time." I argued. "Much of it was out of my control!" I complained.
"Yes, sir, you can, you are and you will be held accountable. You have known from the age of nine years that your mortal life was finite. You understood the concept of death when your pet rabbit, Scoot, died."
"Yes, but that’s…"
"That was when you should have realised that you had to make the most of every single moment of your life; that life was relatively short under the best of circumstances."
"I was a kid!" I complained. "How the hell was a nine years old kid supposed to grasp such philosophical concepts, huh?"
"Your rabbit was taken from you as a lesson, sir. Sadly it was a lesson you did not learn very well." the official said in a somewhat condescending tone.
Just then, as though to mock me and my situation, an extremely ancient-looking woman in the queue next to me burst into tears and threw herself in gratitude at the official who had just told her that she had got a free pass, too.
"Considering that I was only forty-two when I was killed in that car accident, it seems like an extraordinary lot of time to have allegedly ‘wasted’."
"You have not always made the best of the time you were given, that much is true." the official said bluntly. "However, the time for discussion is over."
"So, what happens next?" I asked, suddenly feeling very nervous. I could still hear that wail of despair from the unfortunate woman who got purgatory. I didn’t like the sound of that one little bit.
"You repay what you owe, obviously." the official said impatiently. "You can’t just go through life thinking you can waste the precious time that is allocated to you and think you can get away with it scot-free. That is not how it works at all." He actually sounded offended at the very thought!
"Repay time? How the hell does that work, then?" I asked, more bemused than worried.
"Like any debt you incurred as a mortal, you have to pay it off." I was informed. "You do that by serving the community here until you are debt-free. Only then will you be permitted to pass on."
This all sounded far too weird and unbelievable to me.
"Serve the community? Here? How and… Well, just how? Don’t all these people have places to go, you know..?"
I wasn’t articulating myself very clearly. The official wasn’t exactly falling over himself to assist, either, which wasn’t helping. "Help me out here, please." I asked.
Another of those deeply in-drawn breaths followed by the slow exhale.
"As you have seen, nobody passes-on automatically. Every soul who arrives here has to be assessed and their debt calculated. A certain amount of tolerance is permitted…"
I was about to ask how much, but the official forestalled me.
"Between six and nine months, that is all." he said. "Those who have a debt to pay are required to repay it by helping out here in limbo until they have repaid every last second of the time they owe."
"I dare not ask, but if I refuse..?"
"Oh, that’s very simple and straightforward." For the first time the official smiled; a cold and ugly smile that sent a shiver up my spine. "We send you downstairs. You get one chance and one chance only to change your mind. If you don’t you go downstairs and there you stay for all eternity."
I closed my eyes and wished to be back in my car. I was on the way to another of many important business meetings that had been a major part of the last few months of my life when the accident happened. My wife had said more than once that they would be the death of me; that I was working myself into an early grave. How right she was!
"Where do I sign?" I asked jokingly, not expecting a response.
"Right here, sir." the official said, turning his clipboard around and pointing to a dotted line at the bottom of the page.
"Thank you, sir." he said in the warmest tone I had yet heard from him after I had signed. "Now, if you would like to join that queue over there," he added, pointing to his left, "someone will be with you shortly to allocate your tasks. Good luck!"